Monday, July 31, 2006


Are liberals more "empirical" than conservatives? Here are a few items that seem relevant:

1. This is from a review of The Bell Curve by Douglas Massey, a prominent liberal sociologist from Princeton. It appeared in the American Journal of Sociology in 1995 (vol. 101, pp. 747-53):
The way to discredit theories you do not like, of course, is to confront them directly, test them rigorously, and prove them wrong; but, in adopting this course, you must accept the possibility that an explanation you perceive as noxious might, in fact, be correct. Rather than accepting such a possibility -- that culture may somehow be implicated in poverty or that differences in cognitive ability might help account for variation in social outcomes -- sociologists stuck their heads in the sand and hoped the unpleasant ideas would just go away.

The situation would have been bad enough if that is all they did, but many also sought to ensure that no one would investigate such thorny and divisive issues. In a variety of ways, the field actively discouraged the examination of social differences with respect to culture and intelligence. For those who were slow to catch on, object lessons were made of Oscar Lewis and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and, after the treatment these two prominent social scientists received, no one could miss the point.

Using years of ethnographic research conducted in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and New York City, Oscar Lewis published a series of works in the 1960s arguing that poor people adapted to their structural circumstances by adopting behaviors, attitudes, and social arrangements that, while useful in their immediate environment, were disadvantageous in the wider society. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at that time a Harvard sociologist serving as assistant secretary of labor, wrote a report entitled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," which noted the rising rate of family dissolution and unwed childbearing in the black community and linked these trends to high levels of black male unemployment in the ghetto. He warned of dire consequences for society unless something was done to check the rapid rise in black female-headed households.

Both views implied that, under certain circumstances, the behavior of poor people might contribute to the perpetuation of their poverty, and, for this heresy, both men were excoriated by liberals throughout the social science establishment. . . . The calumny heaped on these two distinguished social scientists had a chilling effect on social science over the next two decades. Sociologists avoided studying controversial issues related to race, culture, and intelligence, and those who insisted on investigating such unpopular notions generally encountered resistance and ostracism.
2. James Coleman is one of the most famous sociologists of the 20th century. He was the primary author of the 1966 "Equality of Educational Opportunity" study for the U.S. government -- I've never seen another social science study of that magnitude (several hundred pages analyzing the performance of several hundred thousand students in thousands of schools).

In 1975, Coleman put out another report titled Trends in School Segregation, 1968-73. What made this report controversial at the time was that Coleman showed that "white flight" was occurring in response to desegregation plans. Coleman's thesis is now the conventional wisdom, of course, but it wasn't greeted with open minds at the time. Coleman explains why on pages 166-67 of his book Equality and Achievement in Education:
For many who were not sympathetic to the extensive school reorganization that a desegregation plan entailed, the report was seen as a revelation that the emperor had no clothes, as a statistical analysis documenting what ordinary persons had known all along: that busing did not work. Because a person who had been seen to be at the forefront of the social movement – the person who, as author of the “Coleman Report,” was seen by some as the “father of busing” – made the revelation, it was even more powerful.

One can understand the outrage with which many advocates of massive desegregation plans (including the then-president of the American Sociological Association, who proposed to have me censured by the association) greeted the report by recognizing the heterogeneous nature of the coalition on which the social movement depended. . . . The vehemence with which many of the leaders and most ardent supporters of busing plans greeted the publication of this report stemmed from the report’s potential for destroying this heterogeneous coalition by leading those interested only in achieving desegregation to withdraw support: If busing were shown to be ineffective in its announced intention, through its indirect resegregating effects, then the movement would lose a large fraction of the support on which it depended.
3. The work of James Coleman supplies yet another example of the over-politicization of social science. In the 1980s, Coleman and several co-authors wrote a couple of books showing that Catholic schools were superior to public schools – in terms of academic results, civic education, and improving the education of racial minorities. Coleman was once again very unpopular for daring to reach such an incorrect result. Ultimately, his vindication came when the American Sociological Association gave him an award and later made him the president of that association. On receiving the award, Coleman’s response included this passage:
James S. Coleman, “Response to the Sociology of Education Award,” Academic Questions (Summer 1989): 76-78.

I ask you to recall the extraordinarily strong pro-public school consensus [within the academic community], the consensus that private schools were inegalitarian, and that Catholic schools were both ineffective and inegalitarian. . . . It was not accidental that the first research that dared to claim that private schools, and even (as it turned out, especially) Catholic schools produced higher achievement for strictly comparable students, was done by someone whose reputation was secure. And it is not accidental that these results were followed by similar results from others younger in the field who until then had been inhibited by their own discipline from asking these questions. . . . How can the discipline . . . so structure itself that it does not erect norms against research that challenges the conventional wisdom? Or more pointedly, how can the discipline structure itself so as not to violate academic freedom, as it has done in the past? . . . I accept [this award] in the name of all those researchers whose academic freedom was constricted by the norms of the discipline. Perhaps most of all, I accept it in the name of all those who have braved these norms and have had their reputations warped, twisted, or destroyed by doing so.
One of Coleman’s compatriots – Andrew Greeley – had these thoughts on his own similar research:
I often regret that I ever became engaged in this area of scholarly investigation. It has been a waste of time. Doctrinaire slogans, conventional wisdom, shallow ideology, pessimism, and nonsense have dominated the discussion of Catholic education for so long that I have little hope that mere findings, no matter how solid, will be taken seriously. Certainly my own work and that of the research heritage I have described has had no impact at all.
4. One of the relatively early books proposing school vouchers was Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, published by Brookings and written by John Chubb and Terry Moe in 1990. In a more recent book on vouchers (The Education Gap), Paul Peterson and William Howell point out how Chubb and Moe’s book was received at the time:
So intense was the opposition that a nationwide and quite unprecedented (at least to our knowledge) letter-writing campaign was organized to stop the appointment of one of the authors to a prestigious position at one of the country’s leading universities.

Mel Gibson

Mark Shea has a very interesting response to the Mel Gibson situation.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

WalMart and Global Warming

Wal-Mart has been laying plans to combat global warming in a variety of ways -- improving fuel efficiency in its trucks, drastically reducing the amount of packaging it uses (meaning less energy is used to create the packaging in the first place), reducing the use of electricity (Wal-Mart is the biggest user of electricity in the world), and more. A friend of mine from church works at Wal-Mart's headquarters, and he mentioned to me that in a meeting the other day, the fellow in front of him seemed familiar, and when they had the chance to talk, it turned out to be the national president of the Sierra Club.

I wouldn't be surprised if, when all is said and done, Wal-Mart may have done more to help the environment than any other organization in the world. One very wealthy donor can make headlines for making a one-time gift of $400 million to environmental groups. But Wal-Mart is the biggest company on earth, and it purchases some $100 billion from its suppliers, year in, year out. When Wal-Mart snaps its fingers, tens of thousands of companies jump. And if Wal-Mart demands that other companies use less energy, less packaging, etc., it will happen.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Family picture 2006

Family picture 2006, originally uploaded by thebuckstopshereblog.

Here's a recent family photo. As you can see, it's impossible to get everyone to look at the camera and make a pleasant face at the same time. The newest addition is Christine, who is immediately to my right in the picture. She's from Haiti.

Teach to the Test?

This Charles Murray article criticizing the "No Child Left Behind" act makes a typical complaint regarding testing:
Test scores in Texas went up for both blacks and whites. Maybe that's good news, representing real gains in learning for everyone, or maybe it's not so good, representing the effects of teaching to the test. The data Texas reports do not permit a judgment.
1) What exactly is teaching to the test? It seems to be a catchphrase that simply means teaching a specific subject that is going to be tested. Right? So if the teacher knows that a state-wide or national test is going to include long division, the teacher will make sure the class learns long division.

2) Why is "teaching to the test" something to be contrasted to "real gains in learning"? If, as I suggest above, a test includes long division, and the teacher covers long division in class in order to make sure that kids do well on the test, then when the class learns long division, they have made a "real gain in learning," have they not? Why on earth should their knowledge of long division be discounted or slighted merely because the upcoming test gave the teacher the motivation to teach them long division?

Now if the test covered something that fourth-graders don't need to learn -- say, the ability to memorize transcripts of World Wrestling Foundation events -- then "teaching to the test" would indeed be a problem. Not because "teaching to the test" is bad in and of itself, but because the test itself measures the wrong thing.

But if a test measures something useful -- something that kids should be learning anyway, whether or not they were going to be tested -- then shouldn't "teaching to the test" be, on average, a good thing? At least, it wouldn't be somehow *contrary* to "real learning."


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Keane Again


Well, YouTube took down that last video. Here's another that catches the end of one song and then all of another. I'm impressed that Keane seems to do all of their songs live in the exact same key as on the recording. Thus, the lead singer hits a high B regularly in the chorus (at 3:34, for example). (Most bands seem to put everything a half- or whole-step lower in live performances, so as to make things easier on the singer's voice. I've seen U2 do this.)



Here's a video of Keane performing one of the songs from their new album. UPDATE: Sorry, that video seems to have been pulled.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Empirical Study on Scholarship and Teaching

My good friend and classmate Dan Markel points me to a new study that purports to measure the empirical relationship between scholarship and law teaching:
Is There a Correlation Between Scholarly Productivity, Scholarly Influence and Teaching Effectiveness in American Law Schools? An Empirical Study

University of Tennessee, Knoxville - College of Law

This empirical study attempts to answer an age-old debate in legal academia; whether scholarly productivity helps or hurts teaching. The study is of an unprecedented size and scope. It covers every tenured or tenure-track faculty member at 19 American law schools, a total of 623 professors. The study gathers four years of teaching evaluation data (calendar years 2000-03) and creates an index for teaching effectiveness.

This index was then correlated against five different measures of research productivity. The first three measure each professor's productivity for the years 2000-03. These productivity measures include a raw count of publications and two weighted counts. The scholarly productivity measure weights scholarly books and top-20 or peer reviewed law review articles above casebooks, treatises or other publications. By comparison, the practice-oriented productivity measure weights casebooks, treatises and practitioner articles at the top of the scale. There are also two measures of scholarly influence. One is a lifetime citation count, and the other is a count of citations per year.

These five measures of research productivity cover virtually any definition of research productivity. Combined with four years of teaching evaluation data the study provides a powerful measure of both sides of the teaching versus scholarship debate.

The study correlates each of these five different research measures against the teaching evaluation index for all 623 professors, and each individual law school. The results are counter-intuitive: there is no correlation between teaching effectiveness and any of the five measures of research productivity. Given the breadth of the study, this finding is quite robust. The study should prove invaluable to anyone interested in the priorities of American law schools, and anyone interested in the interaction between scholarship and teaching in higher education.
As valuable and interesting as this finding is, I tend to doubt that the relationship between scholarship and teaching can be empirically measured.

First, how do you define what counts as "good" scholarship? Mere volume? Even with the weighting that Barton did (i.e., counting certain types of articles or books more than others), I'm skeptical that volume is an appropriate measure.

What about the law professor who writes 10 tedious, inflated, and not-very-enlightening articles? Is that professor "better" at scholarship than a professor who writes one brilliant law review article that is massively influential? I'd say that the brilliant but terse scholar is "better" than the merely logorhheaic one, but Barton's methodology would give the logorhheaic professor 10 times as many points.

"But what about citation counts?" Yes, Barton did use citation counts in another phase of the analysis. I agree that this measure is better than mere productivity. Still, a citation count is problematic for several reasons. Many scholars might cite Bork's famous First Amendment article from the 1970s, but only because they view Bork as emblematic of a view that they reject. A citation count overestimates the skill of professors who write in trendy areas of the law, and underestimates the scholarly achievement of professors who may have written brilliant analyses of ERISA, or the taxation of international business structures, etc. Because citation counts can vary for reasons that are not really related to scholarly ability, there might be hidden correlations here.

More broadly, I'm not sure that the "quality" of legal scholarship can be feasibly reduced to a number. Legal scholarship comes in many different varieties, and I don't think that there is any uncontested metric of "quality" that all legal scholarship is trying to achieve.

2. How do you measure teaching effectiveness? Barton did it by looking at student evaluations, even while admitting the shortcomings of this approach:
I also am aware that the use of teaching evaluations as a proxy for teaching effectiveness is somewhat controversial. There are studies, both within law schools and higher education in general, that show that teaching evaluations have biases, including biases based on race (Smith 1999), gender (Farley 1996), and even physical attractiveness (O’Reilly 1987). Other studies have shown that student teaching evaluations are positively correlated with other measures of teaching effectiveness, including peer reviews and output studies, suggesting at least that student measures track other alternative measures (Bok 2004).

Many law faculty members have nevertheless argued to me that teaching evaluations are little more than a popularity contest. Some have even argued that teaching effectiveness is inversely correlated with teaching evaluations, since students tend to highly rank easy professors of little substance, while ranking professors who challenge them comparatively lower.
Barton defends the use of student evaluations on the ground that there isn't any better source of data. That may be so, but again, I'm not sure that this data is all that reliable. Is a "good" teacher one who covers a certain amount of material in a clear fashion, but leaves most of the class bored and uninterested in pursuing the subject any further after the exam? Is a "good" teacher one who challenges and pushes the students to learn more, to think more deeply, etc.? (As Barton acknowledges, such a teacher might get lower ratings from those students who are essentially lazy.) Is a "good" teacher one who has a powerful, charismatic, and entertaining personality, such that he/she gets good ratings no matter what the students actually learn? Can a teacher be "good" if he is brilliantly quirky, such that half the students love him and half hate him? Is it better for a teacher to impart the maximum amount of information, or to teach the students one big idea that shapes the students' thinking long after the details of the class material are forgotten?

UPDATE: I should also point out that this study, for what it's worth, is entirely consistent with my previous posts. That is, this study doesn't show anything whatsoever about my main point, i.e., that the mere act of teaching a few classes a year could improve a professor's scholarship (as compared, say, to a think tank scholar who never leaves his office). Barton doesn't look at whether scholars are more productive or are cited more often if they (a) teach sometimes vs. (b) never teach at all.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Pauli Murray

I recently read Pauli Murray's autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat. Murray was a long-time civil rights activist, and later in her career co-founded the National Organization for Women.

One passage that I found particularly interesting was her defense of the term "Negro" as opposed to "black." It occurs in a portion of the book describing her time teaching at Brandeis in the late 1960s:
[When challenged by a student,] I explained that "Negro" was a legitimate usage, a proper noun adopted by scholars and official government publications, and was preferred by many people, including me.

* * *

The most recent change [from "Negro" to "black"], which was accomplished with dizzying speed by clamorous black militants abetted by the electronic media, was symptomatic to me of confused attitudes over questions of identity. As my Howard University friends of the 1940s, Ruth Powell, expressed it, "Pauli, I find it very disconcerting to go to bed one night a Negro and wake up the next morning a 'black.' Nobody gave me any choice in the matter."

* * * In June 1969, Newsweek published the results of a poll (apparently conducted among Negroes) which showed that "Negro" was most liked by 38 percent of those questioned; followed by "Colored People" (25 percent), reflecting an older generation; "Blacks" (19 percent)' and "Afro-American" (11 percent).

* * *

In 1968, "black" had political connotations closely allied with the ideology of separatism. It emphasized a black-white polarization that the term "Negro" did not convey, and its projection into settled usage had a disturbing effect, captured in the comment attributed to the late Ethel Waters: "I'm comfortable with being a Negro, and I'm tired of changing my racial identification every few years."

* * *

The transition among many white Southerners from use of the contemptuous "niggers" to a grudging "nigras" and finally to "Knee-grows" had occurred in my lifetime. I felt that the reversion to lowercase "black" was a self-defeating step and the surrender of a term of dignity that previous generations had fought so hard to achieve. Nothing could dramatize more the symbolic demotion to second-class status, I thought, than the appearance in print of the new designation in a sequences of classifications, as in Puerto Ricans, Hispanics, Native Americans, blacks, Jews, Chicanos, Orientals, etc. It seemed to me that the black militants had put themselves in the place where their white detractors wanted them.

Driving and Cellphones

I very much agree with this post, except for the explanation at the end:
California is considering a ban on cell phone use while driving. Hands-free phones will still be permitted. The informal and published debate about this is interesting because of a seemingly desperate desire not to believe the well-established facts, which are (1) Using a cell phone while driving is about as impairing as being just at the legal alcohol limit; (2) a handsfree phone is just as bad as a handheld one. The law should rule out any phone use while driving, and anyone doing it, legal or not, should be an object of social scorn, right up there with drunk drivers.

* * *

I find these results perfectly match my intuitive sense of how much worse I drive using a cell phone, whether or not I'm dialing it or have a hand occupied holding it up, and I have completely forsworn this behavior. What's interesting is that the handsfree option doesn't help; after all, you can safely converse with someone in your car while driving, and you can listen to the radio. I believe the problem is that a phone conversation demands your attention and response, unlike the radio, and that the person on the other end, unlike your passenger, can't see what you see through the windshield nor see your visual behavioral cues. The passenger will stop talking instinctively when something important is happening on the road, or when you tense up, but the other party on the phone can't do this.
I don't think that cell phone usage is distracting because the other party isn't able to respond to your own visual cues (approaching cars, etc.). I think it's because of this: When you're talking to a fellow passenger in person, your brain knows that the conversation is happening right in your own environment. There's no disconnect between where the conversation is occurring and where you're located.

But -- and I'm just going on introspection here -- when you have a telephone conversation, your brain imagines that you are present in some other place where the conversation is really taking place. It's as if you partially block out your current surroundings and picture yourself elsewhere. At least that's the way that my brain seems to work.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Natural Selection and Tomatoes

I no longer believe all of the gardening advice about coddling tomato plants. Here's why:

Last year, I believed it. I carefully planted a bunch of tomato seeds in little pots indoors, watered them, gave them reasonable amounts of sunlight, nurtured them with love and care. When the little seedlings got a bit bigger, I followed the instructions about putting them outside only for a while, to get used to the sun, heat, wind, etc. Finally, after several weeks, I transplanted them outdoors. I had about 30 plants, some of which I put against our house, and some of which went against the backyard fence.

Well, 30 tomato plants turned out to produce way more tomatoes than my family could even conceivably eat, even if we ate tomatoes at every meal. So this year, I decided just to have about six plants against the fence. As for the space near the house, I planted several bushes.

Then I decided not to spend my time nurturing a bunch of tomato seeds with love and care. Instead, I bought six foot-tall plants from Lowe's, and planted them directly in the ground by the fence.

Lo and behold, after a while, the space near the house started sprouting up tomato plants. Apparently, a lot of tomatoes had dropped to the ground there last year, and the seeds then came up this spring. (Think of that: Seeds actually sprouting in the ground, surrounded by the rotting fruit that carried them, without human intervention! Who ever heard of such a thing?)

The plants that came up on their own are much healthier, lush, and profuse than any of the plants that I bought from Lowe's, some of which are pathetically spindly.

Here are the plants from Lowe's. Notice that none of them have even nearly reached the top of the stakes:

And here are the plants that came up by themselves, some of which (towards the back) have totally swamped the same wooden stakes:

I'd also point out that this picture doesn't give the full effect, because I already weeded out a bunch of tomato plants that were crowding out the bushes that I planted.

Why the difference? In one word: Natural selection.

The plants that I bought from Lowe's? Obviously, they had been coddled and sheltered indoors, just as the usual instructions would tell you. And as a result, the spindly and weak plants were able to survive to be sold at Lowe's. But as for the plants that came up by themselves -- well, the elements presumably already weeded out any of the sickly seedlings. The ones that survived were the strongest.

The lesson that I take from this is: Don't bother planting tomato seeds or plants in the spring. Instead, this fall or winter, go out and drop a bunch of fresh tomatoes on the ground. Then you may get some great plants that will come up on their own.

In other news, however, I'm pleased with the okra and squash:

Sales Clerks

Tyler Cowen likes "stupid" sales clerks, apparently on the theory that they will at least direct you to the right location without wasting time.

Hmm. Not sure about this. My worst sales clerk experience was as follows: I was in Half-Price Books in Dallas. (A great store, by the way: I've never seen any other bookstore that was literally about the size of a grocery store.)

Anyway, I was looking for Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which my father wanted for a birthday present. After being unable to find it in what seemed the most relevant section (I think it was "Roman History" or "Ancient History"), I asked a sales clerk. Without checking his computer, he said, "I think I know where that is." Then he proceeded to walk with me to . . . the section on Nineteenth-Century America.

As he started studying the shelves, I politely mentioned the title of the book again: "I've been having a hard time finding 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Then something clicked in his head, he stood upright, and said, "Aha, we're in the wrong place. I know where it is." So we started walking across the store. I was a bit puzzled, because we seemed to be heading clear away from any of the history sections. But I thought that maybe the book was in a special section or something.

Finally we arrived --- at a fiction section devoted to romance novels. He told me to look for the author's last name. Rather than point out that Gibbons was not a romance novelist, I decided it was hopeless, and pretended to examine a few book spines while he walked away. Then, as I recall, I went home and ordered the book online.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

School Choice

I can't remember if I ever blogged about this, but it's worth reading: James Forman, Jr., The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First. It appeared in the Georgetown Law Journal in 2005.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Carnival of Homeschooling

This week's edition here.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Solum on Teaching and Scholarship

Larry Solum has chimed in with typically thoughtful and incisive comments on my post below. In light of his post, I'm going to clarify1 or expand on a few things.

First, I said, "It's not enough to know this stuff 'on paper' -- you have to know it stone cold, so that you can answer practically any question that students might throw your way."

Solum objects: "Hardly anyone knows their subject 'stone cold,' especially these days when very few law professors are treatise writers. Buck's view is wildly romantic."

My response: Fair point. What I should have said is not that a lecturer needs to know the entire subject stone cold at every given point, but that he or she should be intimately familiar with the cases and commentary that are the subject of each particular class session. Much more on this below.

Second, I said, "you have to know the subject well enough to explain it to beginners. I think that this requires more in-depth knowledge than merely being able to converse with other 'experts.'"

Solum responds:
This is simply false. It is at least as accurate to say that in-depth knowledge hurts teaching by introducing more complexity than students can handle. And talking with an expert requires way, way, way more in depth knowledge than teaching. There are many teachers who do a fantastic job in what for them is a tertiary field. They know their way around their casebook and the core concepts of the subject, but would never try to engage an expert in an in-depth discussion of the concepts or rules that lie outside the teaching core.
All of this is true. "In-depth" wasn't the right word there.

Still, I think there was a glimmering of an accurate point in there, trying to get out. A few points that explain what I was trying to say:

1. I've come across this sentiment so often that it seems like a cliche: "You don't really understand a subject unless you can explain it to someone else." I suspect that there's some truth to it. Let's say that I write an article on how recent research shows that the endowment effect may be an experimental artifact, and the implications of this finding for criticisms of the Coase theorem as it applies to contracting situations. This is hardly superstring theory. I ought to be able to explain my thesis in simple terms such that a non-economist and non-lawyer can understand it. If I have trouble doing so, then perhaps I need to have another think. (Note: This idea may not apply as much to law professors, who often have to include elementary background sections in their articles so that law review editors will have some clue as to what the article is about.)

2. Why would explaining something to novices (or simply to anyone not familiar with your particular area of expertise) potentially require a different kind of knowledge than talking to other experts? Personal example: I have written two law review articles that deal with facial and as-applied challenges. If another scholar wants to talk about that particular issue, I could hold my own in an abstract, theoretical debate. But even though I'm very familiar with the high-level concepts that scholars such as Richard Fallon, Marc Isserles, Michael Dorf, and Matthew Adler discuss, if I were teaching a class on Federal Courts, I'd still have to go back and review some of the important cases to remind myself of the facts, the voting patterns, etc. (not to mention other Fed. Courts topics, such as the Eleventh Amendment or various abstention doctrines).

Now I admittedly haven't taught a law school class. But I can't help thinking that it must be somewhat similar to the experience of arguing a case in front of a court. You can spend many, many hours researching, writing, and thinking about a brief. When you're done, it may reflect much deep thought and study -- as much as some law review articles (I'm not going to name names here).

Even so, no matter how much time you spend on the brief, you're still going to have to spend more time preparing for the oral argument. It just flat-out takes more work and study to get everything at the tip of your tongue than it does merely to write about a subject. When you're writing, you have the luxury of time. When you're speaking extemporaneously -- whether in front of a court, or in a classroom, or in a lecture hall -- you have to be fluid.

I'm not sure why that same principle doesn't apply to law teaching as well.
In either situation, it may not be enough to know that a particular case generally stands for a certain holding. Nor can you take several minutes to refresh your memory as to what the case says (as you might when writing a brief or an article). Instead, you have to have either extensive notes or a good memory that would allow you to say, "Flip over to page 15 of the Acme case, which is where the court says X."

That's what leads to the overall point here: If I do go back and review particular cases in close detail, I might see something that didn't occur to me before. I might realize that there is a conceptual connection between a particular case and something else I've recently read. And so forth. The process of preparing for a class could therefore contribute to my ability to produce more scholarship on that subject. (Maybe it won't, of course; maybe that subject is all played out. I'm just saying that on average, teaching might contribute to scholarship at least a little bit more than scholarship contributes to teaching.)

1I.e., back off from.

UPDATE: I agree with Rob Vischer here:
Producing a high-quality article on causation requirements in mass toxic exposure cases will tend to enhance noticeably only my teaching of that particular topic in the Torts course, but teaching the entire Torts course will give me the necessary background to understand mass toxic exposure cases in light of the function and purposes of Tort law in general.

SECOND UPDATE: A commenter reminds me of this great Richard Feynman story:
Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Laureate in physics, was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin one-half particles obey Fermi Dirac statistics. Rising to the challenge, he said, "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But a few days later he told the faculty member, "You know, I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it."

Feynman, like most professors, knew that the best way to demonstrate that you understand something is to try and teach it to someone else, particularly someone not in your specialty area.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Teaching vs. Scholarship

UPDATE: I respond to Larry Solum here.

* * *

You occasionally come across the argument that academia rewards scholarship too much, to the possible detriment of students. That is, academia fails to reward good teaching to the extent that it rewards brilliant scholarship.

The response is usually something like this: Scholarship and teaching are not at odds with each other. Instead, if professors are deeply involved in producing the most current scholarship, they will be all the better at teaching their students.

I see two problems with this response. First, I doubt that it is true, at least as to most undergraduate students. For example, a university sophomore might take a semester-long survey of political science. Is there any actual evidence that the sorts of people who write the latest articles seen here or here are better at teaching an introductory survey course? In particular, are they better than a professor who spends the bulk of his/her time thinking about how to teach an effective introductory survey course? Color me skeptical.

Second, I suspect that the more important relationship between teaching and scholarship is the other way around. That is, what's really going on is that the act of preparing for and teaching a class improves a professor's ability to produce thoughtful scholarship.

Let me explain why I think this. I've written several law review articles over the past several years myself. One thing that I've noticed is that if I go back to a law review article I wrote three or four years ago, it can almost be like reading someone else's work. I find myself thinking, "Hmm, I'd forgotten that I made that point," or being unable to remember exactly what was said in various sources that I had cited, etc.

Why is this? For one simple reason: No matter how intensely you study a particular subject, if time goes by without regular review, it's easy for the details to slip from your memory. But teaching a course inherently requires regular review -- not just of your own scholarship on a given subject, but of everything else that is relevant to that subject. If you're going to stand in front of a group of people and explain a particular legal subject, you have to know the ins and outs of all the important cases/statutes/commentary. It's not enough to know this stuff "on paper" -- you have to know it stone cold, so that you can answer practically any question that students might throw your way.

What's more, you have to know the subject well enough to explain it to beginners. I think that this requires more in-depth knowledge than merely being able to converse with other "experts." When you're talking to beginners, you have to understand the topic well enough to boil it down to the basics. You can't get away with casually referring to some abstraction on the assumption that everyone else will know what you're talking about.

In turn, because teaching a class forces you to master a subject in such great detail that you can readily speak about it off the top of your head, your own scholarship in that area will likely be more informed, more thought-out, possibly even more creative.

I'm just guessing here, but I think it's a good guess.

Health Care Costs

You often see comparison between how much the United States spends on health care vs. the anmount spent by European countries. The implication is usually that if only we adopted the French or British model of paying for health care, expenses would similarly go down.

This may be true as to one category of spending: administrative expenses. But it occurs to me that there are potentially many other areas where Americans are simply choosing to buy more health care than Europeans. Consider the following examples:

1. Elective plastic surgery. I don't know the overall statistics, but I have a strong hunch that Americans spend more per capita on facelifts, hair transplants, cosmetic dental procedures, breast surgery, etc., than do Europeans.

2. In-vitro fertilization. This procedure can cost tens of thousands of dollars. It is largely unregulated in America, but tightly regulated in Europe. Again, I have a hunch that Americans spend far more on this completely elective procedure, which is not only expensive in and of itself, but also leads to a higher rate of premature multiple births, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

3. Prescription drugs. As I alluded to earlier, a pharmacist friend of mine sees way too many situations in which people are relying on unnecessary, or needlessly expensive, drugs. Another doctor that I know believes the same thing -- that his fellow doctors rely way too much on the latest marketing from drug companies, which of course are hawking the latest and most expensive drugs that might not be the best remedy for any given patient. For a more systematic look at this subject, see Dr. John Abramson's book Overdosed America.

4. Alternative remedies. By some estimates, American spend $48 billion a year on alternative remedies. That said, I don't know to what extent this spending displaces spending on more traditional health care.

5. End-of-life care. America reportedly spends astronomical amounts of healthcare dollars on elderly people who are about to die anyway. This is why, according to one estimate, one percent of the nation "accounts for 30 percent of the nation's health care expenditures". According to another study, spending in the last year of life is over five times the spending during previous years. I can't put my hands on any data on European spending for end-of-life care, but I strongly suspect that it is lower than in America.

To repeat: I'm not 100% sure that Americans spend more per-capita on all of these types of medical care. But I'd like to see such data, if anyone collects it. Specifically, before I give any credence to suggestions that America could substantially lower its health care costs by adopting a more European model, I'd like to see a line-by-line comparison between American and European spending on every conceivable procedure. (I.e.: Line 457: Per-capita spending on liposuction. . . . Line 1285: Per-capita spending on New Age treatments. . . .).

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Another Slave's Story

I think this story is perhaps my favorite. It is shocking, poignant, and hilarious. Read the whole thing:
Dere am one thing Massa Hawkins does to me what I can't shunt from my mind. I knows he don't do it for meanness, but I allus holds it 'gainst him. What he done am force me to live with dat nigger, Rufus, 'gainst my wants.

After I been at he place 'bout a year, de massa come to me and say, "You gwine live with Rufus in dat cabin over yonder. Go fix it for livin'." I's 'bout sixteen year old and has no larnin', and I's jus' igno'mus chile. I's thought dat him mean for me to tend de cabin for Rufus and some other niggers. Well, dat am start de pestigation for me.

I's took charge of de cabin after work am done and fixes supper. Naw, I don't like dat Rufus, 'cause he a bully. He am big and cause he so, he think everybody do what him say. We'uns has supper, den I goes here and dare talkin', till I's ready for sleep and den I gits in de bunk. After I's in, dat nigger come and crawl in de bunk with me 'fore I knows it. I says, "What you means, you fool nigger?" He say for me to hush de mouth. "Dis am my bunk too," he say.

"You's teched in de head. Git out," I's told him, and I puts de feet 'gainst him and give him a shove and out he go on de floor 'fore he knew what I's doin'. Dat nigger jump up and he mad. He look like de wild bear. He starts for de bunk, and I jumps quick fer de poker. It am 'bout three feet long and when he comes at me I lets him have it over de head. Did dat nigger stop in his traks, I's say he did. He looks at me steady for a minute and you's could tell he thinkin' hard. Den he go and set on de bench and say, "Jus' wait. You thinks it am smart, but you's am foolish in de head. Dey's gwine larn you somethin'."

"Hush yous big mouth and stay 'way from dis nigger, dat all I want," I say, and jus' sets and hold dat poker in de hand. He jus' sets, lookin' like de bull. Dere we'uns sets and sets for 'bout an hour and den he go out and I bars de door.

De nex' day I goes to de missy and tells her what Rufus wants and missy say dat am de massa's wishes. She say, "Yous am de portly gal and Rufus am de portly man. De massa wants you-uns for to bring forth portly chillen."

I's thinkin' bout what de missy say, but say to mysef, "I's not gwine live with dat Rufus." Dat night when him come in de cabin, I grabs de poker and sits on de bench and says, "Git 'way from me, nigger, 'fore I busts yous brains out and stomp on dem." He say nothin' and git out.

De nex' day de massa call me and tell me, "Woman, I's pay big money for you and I's done dat for de cause I wants yous to raise me chillens. I's put yous to live with Rufus for dat purpose. Now, if you doesn't want whippin' at de stake, yous do what I wants."

I thinks 'bout massa buyin' me offen de block and savin' me from bein' sep'rated from my folks and 'bout bein' whipped at de stake. Dere it am. What am I's to do? So I 'cides to do as de massa wish and so I yields. . . .

I never marries, 'cause one 'sperience am 'nough for dis nigger. After what I does for de massa, I's never wants no truck with any man. De Lawd forgive dis cullud woman, but he have to 'scuse me and look for some others for to 'plenish de earth.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Remembering Slavery

I recently read the book "Remembering Slavery," which consists of many transcripts from interviews with former slaves. The interviews were mostly conducted by workers from the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s. The book's introduction notes that there are some problems with the interviews -- in some instances, the interviewers seem to have edited the former slaves' words, or to have used far too much dialect in transcribing the words (even to the point of writing "wuz" when the former slave had correctly pronounced "was").

The transcripts contain many horrifying stories of beatings, the sundering of families, etc. Those were painful to read. There were also some colorful and interesting stories or tidbits as well, such as the following:

De war breaks and dat make de big change on de mass's place. He jines de army and hires a man call' Delbridge for overseer. After dat, de hell start to pop, cause de first thing Delbridge do is cut de rations. He weight out de meat, three pound for de week, and he measure a peck of meal. And 'wern't enough. He half starve us niggers and he want mo' work and he start de whippin's. . . . I guess dat Delbridge go to hell when he died, but I don't see how de debbil could stand him.
This story was hilarious:
Ole Marse John ain't never had no chillun by his wife. His wife was pow'ful jealous of Martha [a slave that John preferred] an' never let her come near de big house, but she didn't need to cause Marsa was always goin' down to the shacks where she lived. Marse John used to treat Martha's boy Jim jus' like his own son, which he was. Jim used to run all over de big house, an' Missus didn't like it, but she didn't dare put him out. One day de Parson come to call. He knew Marse John but didn't know Missus Mamie. He come to de house an' Jim come runnin' down de stairs to meet him. He took de little boy up in his arms an' rubbed his haid, an' when Missus come, tol' her how much de boy look like his father and mother. "Course it favor its father most," de preacher say, tryin' to be polite, "but in de eyes, de lookin' glass of de soul, I ken see dat he's his mother's boy." Miss Mamie shooed de child away an' took de preacher inside. Never did let on it wasn't her chile. Was pow'ful mad 'bout it, though. Never would let dat boy in de house no' mo'.
I love that "which he was."

Then there was this account of a wedding, from Tempie Herndon Durham. Again, you can just imagine the huge twinkle in her eye as she told this story:
Uncle Edmond Kirby married us. He was de nigger preacher dat preached at de plantation church. After Uncle Edmond said de las' words over me an' Exter, Marse George got to have his little fun: He say, "Come on, Exter, you an' Tempie got to jump over de broom stick backwards; you got to do dat to see which one gwine be boss of your househol'." Everybody come stan' 'roun to watch. Marse George hold de broom 'bout a foot high off de floor. De one dat jump over it backwards an' never touch de handle, gwine boss de house, an' if bof of dem jump over without touchin' it, dey won't gwine be no bossin', dey jus' gwine be 'genial. I jumped fust, an' you ought to seed me. I sailed right over dat broom stick same as a cricket, but when Exter jump he done had a big dram an' his feets was so big an' clumsy dat dey got all tangled up in dat broom an' he fell head long. Marse George he laugh an' laugh, an' tole Exter he gwine be bossed 'twell he skeered to speak less'n I tole him to speak.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

More on Friendship

This is a single data point, but it has affected my thinking.

I talked with a good old friend a while back, who had spent two years in a Third World country with his wife and kids. Turned out that he now seemed to be depressed about living in America. One of his main complaints was something like this: "Over there, people always had time for friends. You'd always see your friends on the street, or they would drop by your house. Friends were one of the most important things. But over here, it's hard to get together, even with old friends, because they're so busy with their own lives and activities. And in your neighborhood, once in a while you'll see your neighbors. But mostly, people come home in their cars at the end of the day, and then the garage door goes down and they are just sealed off from the world."